Sihai parked his newly washed Corolla at the curb rather than in the Royal Garden Hotel’s underground parking lot, a decision he regretted once he realized the lot was free. At least his wife didn’t notice. After all, it had started drizzling. Southern summers were always veiled in hot steam, but his wife hated the slightest risk of their daughter catching a hypothetical cold.
Sihai was the dictionary definition of a man, the kind who thought umbrellas robbed him of his manhood. Age had etched away his brows, leaving two transparent snail trails marking the brow bones. He was moderately tall for a Northerner, but here in the South, he towered. Next to him, his wife stood small and lanky, holding the baby. She was shrewd and impatient, the result of a second marriage and a one-year-old. She had left her first husband, a farmer, for the city, because all he thought of was children, and all she thought of was apartments. Sihai owned his own apartment — not big, not bad. His lips were dark purple; he had been born with pigmented lips, as though the coldness of his home — an unremarkable, undeveloped village in the frozen North — had permanently stained them. As for his wife, her own lips were also purple, but the sparkling gloss was a cosmetic effect, which had transferred to her teeth. She was occupied by something else.
“Oh, don’t cry. People are looking. Shushu is coming, okay? Just minutes away. The uncle from the North, remember? We can’t go there. Too cold. It will freeze your toes off. Tonight, the snow is coming to you! Uncle will tell you all about his snow. Why are you crying?” She fished in her tote bag but couldn’t find any toys or tissue paper. Sihai took the baby and gently rocked and walked, dodging glares of accusation from the guests with Chanel bags. Without a toy at hand, his wife took out her phone to play cartoon videos. The baby calmed. His wife wiped her teeth clean with her fingers.
“This hotel, the marble pillars, the orchids, the fountains…I should pay for breathing this air,” Sihai’s wife said. “Why can’t your brother eat at our home tonight? Is he trying to impress you?”
“Maybe he’s trying to impress you,” Sihai said. Sihai’s first wife had never seemed to like Weijia; to her the North meant spending money, and Weijia meant the North. His brother had never met his new wife. Sihai hoped this would go well.
Tonight’s reunion was a surprise. Weijia had squeezed out one night from his business trip to fly over to see Sihai. Sihai appreciated the detour, especially since Weijia was a company manager, which gilded his time with importance. Though Sihai hadn’t had a Royal Garden experience, he understood the value of it, which was why he, his wife, and their baby all wore uncomfortable outfits. The baby was still too young to appreciate her sequined dress and lace frills.
“Then I’ll make sure I thank him properly for this overpriced dinner. Who knows when our next fancy meal will be?” They were saving for a private kindergarten: if there was one luxury Sihai’s wife approved of, it was education. The baby was Sihai’s second but her first. “Oh, baby, again? Don’t cry. Why are you crying? Hungry? What about cream? You want cream?” His wife took the baby to the bakery downstairs for a cream-filled bun, leaving Sihai alone with a table in an embroidered white cover and a waiter in leather shoes shinier than his. After a glance at the menu, Sihai coughed twice and respectfully ordered tea.
It had been thirty years since Sihai left his village. Everyone joked about how the two brothers’ names had become their destinies. Sihai, four oceans. A man forever moving. Weijia, settle down. A man who makes a home. Sihai had gone to take his chances in the South, sending money to Weijia, who had stayed to look after their sick father. After their father passed away, Weijia stayed as a solace for their mother, then never left.
Hot tea came with sugar, milk, and a polished silver spoon. Sihai took a sip. Home to him, a leaver, was like an old lover: at a distance it called to him, but once he returned, the longing became fear that they might no longer recognize each other. He didn’t call home often. Good news or no news. A man was someone who swallowed down the pain, not someone who broadcast it. Sihai’s first marriage was an overstretched unhappiness. His first wife had only gone back with him twice: once with their newborn and once to attend Weijia’s wedding. After that, she refused, which made Sihai reluctant to go home alone. In a village where people greeted each other by displaying what long johns they were wearing, the absence of a wife raised too many questions. After the divorce, Sihai never went back. He remarried without ceremony and had another kid — more to satisfy his second wife than to celebrate his virility. The pressure of a new child had inflicted constant exhaustion and guilty resentment. Who would have thought that the one who chased the fortune, took backbreaking jobs, and did underpaid overtime without complaint would end up as a nonessential on the verge of being replaced in a small factory?
The waiter in the corner was eager for any query, gesture, or eye signal. Under that searing gaze, Sihai pointed at the teapot, and the waiter disappeared in a flash. Why isn’t Weijia here yet? Sihai took another sip before he heard a familiar voice.
There stood Weijia with an oversized suitcase, his bulging belly wrapped in a tailored suit, a splash of gray at his temples. Sihai stood up to hug his brother and saw that they were almost the same height. Sihai had once been the tallest in the family, but the stoop forged by lasting labor had dwarfed him.
Sihai’s wife returned with the baby. She quickly tossed the bread packaging into a bin and cleaned up the baby’s mouth.
“So long, big brother! How have you been? Yes, nice to meet you, sister-in-law. You look so much younger in person.” Weijia reached out to shake hands with the wife, but she misunderstood and gave him the baby. “Oh, come here, little one. Let Uncle hold you. I’m your shushu, your uncle. You smell like cream, angel. Do you know how to say ‘shushu’?” He kissed the baby twice before handing her back.
Sihai smiled. Weijia was as awkward with the baby as he had been with Sihai’s first son.
“Have you ordered yet, Sihai?”
“Not yet. Tonight is about you, Weijia. You choose. Spicy? I’m not sure if the chilies here will be strong enough for you. Southern chilies merely tingle.” After long years of drifting in the wet, hot South, Sihai had dropped his taste for spicy food — the signature taste in the cold North — and developed a palate for the mild and light.
“Oh, brother, I can handle any food now. All these travels have made my stomach open-minded.”
The waiter presented the leather-bound menu again. Seeing the pictures, the baby pointed at something orange and said, “Big shrimp! Big shrimp!”
“Those are lobsters,” Weijia corrected her and laughed. “She is such a precious! Have you seen lobsters, baby?”
“Yes, on TV,” Sihai’s wife answered. “Big orange shrimps with big pincers. Very angry-looking fish. Almost frightened our little angel, right? Baby?”
“Don’t be scared, baby. Lobsters are not scary at all.” Weijia chuckled. “They are weak because we can eat them. Three Boston lobsters cooked with cheese, please, for the baby.”
Sihai’s wife beamed, but she remembered to be grateful. “Baby, say, ‘Thank you, Shushu.’ Lobsters! Say thank you to Uncle. Sorry, Weijia. She’s shy.” Sihai leaned over to fill his wife’s teacup, hoping to douse her overflowing enthusiasm. She didn’t look at him.
The dishes arrived exquisitely plated, but Sihai’s wife only paused her baby-feeding and gasped when Weijia announced the price for his new apartment in the North. The housing prices in a city of snow and soil and slow motion had risen to equal the prices in a Southern city. Sihai had bought his own unit before the housing fever spread, but the aging unit was not enough for his wife, who followed the housing market religiously. Her aspirations gave him headaches. His wife exclaimed her surprise that Weijia would choose to root deeper into the North when he could afford to leave with dignity, while so many others had escaped like startled birds.
“Crazy, right? My first apartment only cost me 480K yuan, but guess what? Last year I sold it for double. No elevator! These capitalists, they’ve pushed up the prices at home. But it’s easy money. I’m eyeing another investment. You know, I don’t trust the stock market. That’s for smart people. I only trust what I can see. How about you, brother? Joined the housing rush? No? Still at your old place? Smart. Very cautious. Don’t get into the game just because everyone’s playing it. No mortgage, no cage. How much space does one need for sleep anyway? Look at my belly, draping like a melting ice cream! Mortgages. They’ve aged me.” Weijia took a big bite into the lobster, his lips glossy with oil.
“You’re smarter than you think, Weijia,” Sihai’s wife said. “After all, you’re management now. It sounds like the North should be the land of gold instead.” Sihai put down his chopsticks and sat straighter.
Weijia quickly waved his hand. “No, no, sister-in-law. I would have starved to death years ago if Sihai had not left. Sihai’s brave. Ba used to say, ‘All men with ambitions leave home.’ Sihai’s South money saved us. I was never a good student, sister-in-law. My brother here was the smart one, but he dropped out for us. Sihai asked me to join him, but I thought at least one of the sons should stay.”
Sihai had asked Weijia to leave more than once. The Northern soil: it only nourished the crops, not the people. The land was so fertile that it grew itself from the early summer to autumn while men sat bantering next to the tractors, and then it fell asleep under the snow. Locked inside by the unforgiving cold, people dissolved into chitchat and liquor, and Weijia was happy. He was good at drinking and office politics, especially in the North, where those two meant the same thing. Weijia called every man older than him “brother.” The casual brothering drove the real brother out. Sihai called less and worked more, filling his absence with the money he sent back.
Three years ago, Weijia took the right side in his office war and got promoted, not for his merit but for his loyalty. Sihai gave dry congratulations and kept sending money. He told Weijia the money was for their mother. Weijia had tried to reject the gesture once he heard about Sihai’s new daughter: “Sihai, take care of your own family first.” But Sihai had insisted; that routine was his solid connection with home. Sihai told his wife about Weijia’s promotion, but he knew better than to mention those remittances.
“Apparently, a successful man can succeed in any place,” his wife said.
“Just luck, sister-in-law. Sometimes fortune favors fools.”
The waiter cleared the table and redecorated it with dessert. Weijia had crème brûlée. Sihai’s wife and the baby shared one chocolate cake because Sihai’s wife loved to regulate her child’s sugar consumption, and the baby had really had too much sweet cream. “Good teeth save you from bankruptcy.” Sihai ordered only the same tea. He was never into sweet food.
When Weijia went into the bathroom, Sihai asked his wife, “Can you drive back with our baby? I want to have a good drink with Weijia after dinner. You will be bored. I’ll take a taxi.”
“It’s more like you and your brother will be bored with us. Fine. You can talk about your man stuff while I play both roles tonight. I’ve had my lobsters anyway. Don’t be too late, and don’t take out your wallet. It’s tuition money. You’ve done a lot, as Weijia said. Let him pay.”
The reunion progressed with more alcohol-soaked reminiscing. Weijia kissed the baby goodbye. Sihai kissed her goodbye too and told his wife to drive home safely. The waiter helped the brothers move to the bar table and presented a new menu for drinks.
“You pick, Sihai. You’re the lighter drinker here. I don’t mind white or red or exotic.” Weijia was a champion with booze.
Sihai flipped through the menu and kept his uneasiness internal. Are wines here made of liquid gold? Then he spotted something on the final page.
“Yes, I would like a Red Bull and an erguotou.” Seeing the waiter’s slightly raised eyebrows, Sihai explained, “It’s my secret cocktail recipe. No, don’t open them. I’ll mix them myself. You don’t know the ratio. Yes, and two glasses, tall with ice. Thank you.”
Sihai poured erguotou, a strong sorghum liquor, into the glasses and smelled it before he opened the Red Bull. Popular in the North, erguotou was usually cheap, a supermarket booze, and it always tasted sharp and aggressive, hard to swallow, like working-class life. But the restaurant bottle smelled gentler, sweeter, even peaceful. It was the good stuff. Sihai filled the last quarter of each glass with Red Bull and stirred the mixture well. “Try, Weijia. Together they taste just like Chivas. My usual ratio is two to one, but since you don’t drink mild, I reduced the Red Bull. Try. I bet even your tongue can’t tell the difference.” Weijia took a sip and complimented Sihai on his intelligence again.
“Tell me, brother. Family to family.” The weight in Weijia’s words put Sihai on the alert. “I like my new sister-in-law. She’s a keeper. You know I trust your decisions, but…” Eventually, the question. “Why did you divorce your first wife? Don’t fence with me again. You two had a son. Spouses fight, I get it. But a divorce? And now you’re starting over with another baby. Parenting is real work. No matter how much you love your daughter, it’s work.” Weijia sighed. “I still remember the day you two came home to visit and I held my nephew for the first time. Why couldn’t you two stay together for your son?”
Sihai remembered it too. He had persuaded his first wife to bring his firstborn back to the North. Holding the baby in his arm, Weijia had sweated heavily in the cool autumn wind, petrified by the small softness in the swaddle. His nephew! Weijia seemed to have no clue how not to accidentally harm the fragile little one, but he gradually loosened his muscles when he looked into the baby’s eyes: clear, curious, fearless. Sihai’s first wife had wanted to snatch the baby back, but Sihai deflected her with a begging smile. Outside the window, the wheat field stretched forward relentlessly: from the rich black soil, the green stalks, the yellow grains, all the way to the horizon, where the gold united with the sharp blue, wind stirring up waves. For a flicker of moment, the fullness of life had been so overwhelming that Sihai believed it could last forever.
Sihai didn’t reply right away. He stared at the shrinking ice cubes in the amber liquid. Sihai had lied to Weijia about his relationship with his son. They no longer talked. At fifteen years old, the son had visited one day and stormed out because Sihai had sold his old bed and renovated his room for the coming baby. Sihai felt wronged. Two bedrooms only. His baby needed somewhere to sleep. What else could he do? It only took one misstep to cancel out years of fathering. Sihai had also lied about the cocktail recipe. He had seen on a random website that a mix of erguotou and Red Bull could make a good, budget-friendly Chivas. Sihai didn’t believe it, but tonight he felt audacious. What if this was indeed a golden formula? Sihai inhaled deeply and took a bold gulp. The fake sweetness of the Red Bull made his face crumple.
“What? Did you say ‘towels’? Like, towels you use after a shower?”
“She didn’t like me using old towels.” Sihai sipped his sickly-sweet Chivas. “She always wanted to throw them out. She got rid of them as soon as they showed some wear and tear, or had tiny holes…I mean, they were perfectly usable. Why should I have thrown them away for such trivial flaws? She just kept nagging me about it. One day she brought home a box full of new towels. Japanese brand. Thick and soft and expensive. She wanted to replace all my old towels. I told her, ‘You use your new towels, I’ll use my old ones. We can separate; that makes things easier.’ I didn’t want to argue about towels anymore.” Weijia refilled his brother’s glass and waited.
“She exploded like a grenade, telling me off, making fun of my accent, calling me a provincial Northerner, saying how no woman could ever stand such a low-rent man with no ambition. She thought I meant separate — not for the towels but for us. Guess what? I was fine with both. So the next day I mailed all the new towels to you. At least someone would enjoy them.” Sihai met his brother’s eyes. “And she said she’d had enough. She took my son because she would ‘make sure he has lived.’ I signed the papers. I signed the papers, letting her take away my son and the car, because I was already fucking forty-three. My grandpa, our grandpa, died before fifty. Our father kicked off at sixty-one. Men in our family don’t live long; that’s just a fact, and I didn’t want to waste my last countable years fighting over stupid towels.”
Weijia opened his mouth but didn’t make any sound. He coughed instead and said, “She is not a bad person, brother. She’s, just, not like us.”
A tiny bug fell into Sihai’s glass. It floated there, struggling with its wings. Sihai watched its motions. She is just not like us. He repeated it in his head. Of course he knew. Everyone knew.
His first wife had thought she had married down. Just like wealth had different levels, so did poverty. Neither her family nor his was rich, but being less poor meant being “better.” She had had the luck to be less miserable. She had rotten teeth but never smoked, which gave her pride whenever she went to see the dentist. The rotten teeth were proof that she had had access to sugar when she was little. She always said, “An egg and a spoon of sugar in hot water. That’s what childhood tasted like.” Sihai’s teeth, yellow and misshapen, had been stained by many things. Sweetness was not one of them.
The bug stopped moving and let the liquid push it toward the bottom. Sihai didn’t bother to pick it out and drank up in one go. He was good at swallowing.
“I’m sorry, brother. Well, you’ve found yourself another family now. You two look great together. Nice to have someone to come home to. And your baby angel! Forty-eight is not late at all.” Weijia gave Sihai a consoling pat. “Everything will be okay.” He looked down at his watch — a loud new Rolex, not the watch Sihai had gifted him — and said, “It’s getting late. I have to leave early tomorrow. Better not keep you for too long in case your baby misses her father. Don’t forget to take this box.” Weijia unzipped his suitcase and put the box on a chair. “My gift for you. You go. I’ll have it billed to my room.”
Sihai instantly protested the idea. He had to pay. Getting worked up, he felt his face flush like a ripe tomato. Weijia fumbled to find his hotel key card, but Sihai grabbed his wrist and snarled to the waiter, “Take my card.” The waiter tried to catch it but withdrew to duck from Weijia’s sweeping arm, which was immediately locked by Sihai. “Let go, Sihai. Let me pay and stop making us look like fools.” Weijia swung his hand up to shake off the grip, but Sihai pressed it down again. The two drunk men, panting and red-eyed, started a clumsy, distorted tango. Sihai got hold of the check presenter but dropped it to the marble, so he kicked it away, out of Weijia’s reach. The waiter observed the wrestling between the two heated men and quickly removed all the glasses before they became collateral damage. Weijia slowed down for a second when he heard Sihai say, “I’m the big brother!” and the waiter seized the chance to intercept a card. All of them stopped to look. It was Sihai’s card. A warm surge flooded him. Fire was in his mouth. He felt elated, as if he had grown inches higher, proud and ready, like a flapping eagle perched on the brink of flight.
The clock was striking 1:00 a.m. when Sihai arrived home. His hands trembled as if to shake off all the alcohol he had consumed. He carried the box. A heavy gift. Sihai had given generous presents for Weijia’s wedding: a fine set of china and linen, a designer watch for the groom, a gold necklace for the bride. Those had earned envious glances from all in the village twenty years ago. Drunk with anticipation, Sihai accidentally slammed the door when he tried to sway the box in, and his wife, who had been waiting for him on the sofa, awoke.
“Do you even know what time it is now? How much did you drink?” The wife cast a large shadow on the wall under the dimmed light. Sihai didn’t answer.
“Who paid? It was your brother’s idea that we eat in that Royal Garden, and he ordered all the food. He should pay for it. I mean, that’s the rule. You can pay for the drinks. Drinks don’t cost much. He’s the head of his department now, a first-class seat on a gravy train. Lobsters! Such pointless vanity. I should have packed home the leftovers. He can get reimbursed. Lobsters! Unbelievable. But he seems like a nice guy. A rich guy, definitely. Did you hear that he was looking for another apartment? His third apartment?”
Sihai put the box on the table, then fetched a pair of scissors and began slitting it open. He was disillusioned. A box of flour and rice. Authentic, organic, the Northern kind. He felt an intimate, familiar pang. A valuable gift! He once complained to Weijia that rice in the South tasted like mushy wax, and he hungered for home. But seriously? Sihai wanted to laugh. Flour and rice?
Neglected, his wife raised her voice. “Did he pay for it? Tell me he paid for it. He ordered the lobsters. Did he pay for it?” She stood up and darted to confront him, glaring at him, waiting for him to confirm what she already knew.
“He can pay for dinner when we visit him back home.”
The apartment fell silent. Sihai slowed down his breathing to search the sound of hers. She closed her eyes, her right hand clawing into a chair. Her hands, calloused and veined, reminded him of his sick mother. He wanted to palm her hands, but he waited for what she had to say. Probably things saved up deliberately, things that only she knew would cut deep. Married couples were good at bulleting each other with words. Sihai had learned that.
Instead, she was mute as a statue. Sihai’s shoulders loosened. He was wrong. She was not his first wife. Not another failed marriage. He took out the packs of rice and flour and kicked the box to the door.
“No wonder she left.” His wife spat it out, word by word. The strongest salt. “No wonder she left.” She began to sob. “I’m such a fool, such a fool! You’d think someone with a second chance would cherish it more. Fool! I live like a beggar to save for our daughter’s future while you’re busy acting rich. You think I don’t know about the money you sent back? Lobsters. Fucking lobsters. Why is your brother rich, not you? You are the one in the South. Evil. Evil!” She was firing out vicious attacks like a shotgun over a wounded animal.
“Enough.” Sihai banged his fists and howled, “Enough!” The imitation Chivas made him feel invincible. He threw the first thing he touched on the table toward his wife. “Out! If you are so unhappy, get out!” The thing hit the sofa and broke. It was a bag of flour. Locally made with high gluten, exclusively sold at home. White powder blanketed the living room. She hurled a slipper at him, missing. It enraged him. He stabbed the scissors into the bags and dumped them hard onto the floor. “I’m the one in charge. Out!”
“Baba? Mama?” The baby girl stood in the corner, stunned by the chaos. Her voice shook. Both adults froze.
A pungent tingle emerged in Sihai’s throat. He tried to swallow it, but this time it swallowed him. The fake Chivas had burned out, and he wished a hole would open up in the floor so he could jump into it. His wife swiftly wiped away her tears, then rushed to their daughter and hugged her. “No, baby. Mama and Baba are not fighting. We’re just…we, we’re just…” His wife forced out a horrible smile. She didn’t look at Sihai. He looked around and saw the box his brother brought. He had a thought. He took out another bag of flour and tore it up.
“No, baby, we are trying to surprise you. You always want to see snow, right? But you know we don’t get snow here. Here is too hot. Until now! Your uncle brought us a gift!” Sihai flung a handful of flour into the air above the little girl’s head. “See? Just like what you see in the movies! Wait, let me turn on the AC and make it cold. Honey, would you mind setting it to sixteen degrees? And the floor fan. Yes, bring in the wind.” His wife grabbed the remote control and let in the invented winter. Sihai smudged his face frantically with flour. He pasted his face in white, erasing all traces of age, rage, and heartbreak. He held a fistful of flour before the fan and let go. Both his wife and baby were instantly covered in white too. The baby burst into laughter and started playing with the flour as if it was really winter and they were really in the homeland of never-melting snow. Sihai knelt to seek his daughter’s eyes. “You like your uncle? Yes? How about we go visit him this winter? Where the snow piles up higher than you are? We can have snow fights every day with Uncle. What would you say? We’ll need thick, thick long johns, coats, and boots. No one survives the Northern snow without three layers of underwear. Now, this is just a rehearsal. In winter I’ll show you the real snow. How about that, baby?” His wife nodded. Smelling the warmth of his baby in his arms, Sihai coughed heavily to release the tears. He closed his eyes. The wind coming from the fan was soft and gentle, like a nostalgic song.